Written in 1972, this book tells the interesting story of an alien first contact. The aliens in question have long since gone, but they left behind ‘zones’, areas containing many alien artifacts as well as strange (and dangerous) phenomena. Initially the zones are open for anyone to go in, but after people get killed the authorities in the various countries close off the zones to anyone who is not authorized. The story specifically describes a zone in USA, where a science institute is set up to study the zone. The heavy guard around the zone does not stop looting by ‘stalkers’, who enter the zone illegally to remove artifacts for sale on the black market.

Red Schuhart is a stalker and the story’s main character. We learn that frequent entry into the zone has an effect on dna that causes mutations in their children. Red has a daughter who is referred to only as ‘Monkey’ and her vague description seems rather monkey-like, as she is covered with fir and does not speak. Red himself has spent time in jail for entering the zone. The zone seems to have a hold over him and the other stalkers. He knows it is dangerous and he could get killed any time. He also seems more than half-convinced that nothing good can come out of the zone, but he can’t help going back. This of course has a lot to do with money, as the stalkers can earn good money depending on what they can bring out. But there seems to be some kind of fatal fascination at work. They just can’t stay away.

“I lock myself in the stall, take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech. I’m sitting on the bench, my heart is empty, my head is empty, my soul is empty, gulping down the hard stuff like water. Alive. I got out. The Zone let me out. The damned hag. My lifeblood. Traitorous bitch. Alive. The novices can’t understand this. No one but a stalker can understand. And tears are pouring down my face—maybe from the booze, maybe from something else. I suck the flask dry; I’m wet, the flask is dry. As usual, I need just one more sip. Oh well, we’ll fix that. We can fix anything now. Alive. I light a cigarette and stay seated. I can feel it—I’m coming around.”

Red seems to love and hate the Zone equally.

The book is an interesting look at the effect this kind of event might have on people. Some of this is quite predictable. The government uses the technology, and changes to daily living have occurred from the alien gadgets, even though the scientists admit they don’t really understand how the devices work or if the way they’re being used is as intended by their makers. The town near the zone his expanded in a ‘gold rush’ style boom, as the potential wealth in black market goods attracts people hoping to make their fortune. The government starts to impose certain restrictions on people living near the zones. They’re not allowed to move away, so the changes in dna do not spread to the rest of the population. The soldiers guarding the zone are authorized to fire on stalkers. The scientists are not averse to experimentation that is unethical. An example of this is the fate of the dead, who sometimes resurrect and return to where they used to live. The government will take these people for experimentation if at all possible. It’s all very believable that these reactions would occur in this situation. The quote below gives an indication of the changes near the Zone, and the way people react to something they think might save them, or at least make them rich.

“…they came in droves but ended up as taxi drivers, waiters, construction workers, and bouncers in brothels – yearning, untalented, tormented by nebulous desires, angry at the whole world, horribly disappointed, and convinced that here, too, they’d been cheated. … the rest founded political parties, religious sects, and self-help groups and idled away their evenings in bars, brawling over differences over opinion, over girls, or just for the hell of it.”

The golden sphere that makes wishes come true seems like an odd thing to just dump, but again, who knows what it was supposed to be used for? The stalker who first discovered it has apparently no greater desires than wishing for a perfect woman, making money, and so on, the quintessential greedy human. His desires are ultimately small. Red, in the end, is so disturbed by the entire experience that he can’t even articulate his thoughts, beyond vaguely repeating what his deceased companion had been saying just before he died:

“Look into my soul, I know – everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want – because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his – HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!”

So thematically the book talks about the helplessness of the powerless man in the face of the state. Or the powerless human in the face of the unknown. The aliens never communicated with humans, they merely stopped for a while, then went on their way, leaving junk behind them (the alien ‘roadside picnic’ of the title). The aliens seem to be no more than interplanetary litterbugs. Humans become the scavengers, squirrelling away the detritus to use as best their limited understanding can grasp. The high quantity of lethal items seems accidental (like people letting chemicals enter a waterway and ultimately poisoning a whole ecosystem). It’s certainly a different take on the whole alien contact idea:

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

(There is a film adaptation, “Stalker”, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a great movie – go watch it.)

While “Roadside Picnic” is a short novel, it says a lot, and I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface. It was written in Soviet era Russia, and my copy contains an interesting afterword about how many hoops a writer had to jump through to get anything published. It’s a fascinating book, and I strongly recommend it.

Click the link to buy the book


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